Friday the 13th

(Sean S. Cunningham, USA, 1980)


As a genre, the horror film made an enormous comeback in the late ’70s – a revival spanning both A films (The Exorcist [1973], The Omen [1976], Alien [1979]), and B productions (It’s Alive [1974], When a Stranger Calls [1979], Monster [1979]). No one makes a horror film innocently or naïvely today: the genre is so formularised and codified that each new film has as its evident task to work sufficient variations on the last, whilst being careful to maintain the particular fascination of the genre.

Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th is definitely a no-nonsense proposition: nothing inessential or decorative, just a skeletal, schematic narrative structure and a merciless, delicious preying upon the spectator.

Friday the 13th makes no secret of the fact that it is borrowing from and reworking its generic predecessors. With a musical score comprised in equal parts of blatant steals from Jaws (1975) and Psycho (1960), and a set of narrative moves that are resolutely predictable, the film illustrates one of the great paradoxes of the genre today.

On the one hand, the film orders itself as an elaborate game in which the spectator can (as it were) try to outwit or at least second-guess the filmmaker by anticipating the outcome of any scene – and win or lose, the game is a lot of fun. This aspect is at work, for instance, in the way the film builds up to some murders but abruptly cuts to the next scene before they eventuate – the question for the viewer then being one of how and when the corpse will be found by one of the remaining living characters.

This game-like aspect of the film represents an extreme point of detachment on the spectator’s part. But, on the other hand and simultaneously, Friday the 13th is not a cool, cerebral experience: you jump when it says so, you anxiously squirm with expectancy before a murder, you scream when the worst is shoved in your face. At this level, the film is at its most involving and thus at its most magical and illusory – these seem like real people, real deaths.

Yet, as I have stated, the characters also function as mere figures in a narrative-textual game that is played completely knowingly. The horror film, then – and this one is a fine example – can be seen to function on two levels at once, taking the spectator with it on both of these levels – both detached and involved, both inside and outside the film.

Structurally, the film owes a lot to When a Stranger Calls. As in that film, Friday the 13th begins by presenting an initial scene of violence and horror, a scene that is located several years past when the narrative jumps forward to its present time. But in this present, all that can occur is a repetition of the initial, primal scene, until the killer is exposed and done away with.

It is this pristine repetition which invites a Freudian reading of the horror film, whose fascination is perhaps explicable in terms of a return of the repressed into conscious existence – archaic fears and/or desires located in childhood that return to haunt and disturb adult life. Friday the 13th may work to reactivate this kind of psychic experience.

The film functions on a simple but key cinematic device. In the murder scenes, the presence of the killer is marked by a subjective, point-of-view shot, signified by the use of a hand-held camera. But the film withholds the reverse-shot, and thus the identity of the killer is unknown to the audience (although it is known to some of the characters) until minutes before the end.

Besides being an effective narrative technique, this device introduces a number of intriguing thematic reverberations. What happens, in effect, is that the killer becomes virtually an empty space which any character can fill. In other words, even the most innocent characters, the slightest gestures, become ominous and suspicious, and the film constantly plants clues that invite speculation (one of the characters carries a knife, another playfully shoots arrows at a friend).

And, logically, the spectator is also implicated in this murderous aggression – the eye of the killer approaching its victim is also the camera pushed forward by the viewer’s wish for more violence, more thrills.

Friday the 13th is especially significant for the relationship it draws between death and sexuality. In the Gothic horror film of the past, sexuality was represented under the sign of sin – if ‘normal’ people indulged in it illicitly, they were inviting murderous punishment upon themselves. This film radically changes that representation, in that sexuality is portrayed in entirely positive terms, as the sign of life itself – sexuality is what is most under threat from the psychotic killer.

Particularly lovely is the way in which so-called normality is defined first by conventional, familiar images of ‘clean living’ (singing around an open fire, love for children and animals) which then quite naturally lead into and include images of physical contact, love play, and lovemaking itself. Indeed, the film’s most striking scene shows us first a couple making love, and then gives us the horrifying information that in the bunk above them is the corpse of one of their friends, and under the bed is the killer waiting to strike. Rarely in horror films do the figures representing normality carry such a positive connotation.

The final twist in the film attempts to go one further and change the relation between sexuality and death yet again, by revealing that the killer is in fact a mother sent mad by the fact that her son drowned at camp while supervisors were elsewhere having sex. The idea, presumably, is to suggest that normality itself can produce the monsters that threaten it. This notion, however, is not worked out coherently, and comes rather unsuccessfully as an extra tacked on at the end.

Discounting this fumbled attempt at depth, Friday the 13th carries enough skill and resonance within its more modest working-out to be rated as one of the important horror films being made at this point in cinema history.

© Adrian Martin October 1980 (critic’s age: 21)

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search